06.10.23 Analytics

Artsakh, The End of an Era: The geopolitics of the Karabakh crisis

The swift and tragic conclusion of the Artsakh saga serves as yet another sign of the end of the post-Soviet era, marked by two decades of unseen geopolitical shifts that silently laid the groundwork for this catastrophe. The exodus of the Armenian population from Karabakh would have seemed unthinkable and even fantastical twenty years ago. Yet, its occurrence is the result of tectonic shifts and a fundamental rebalancing of power that have taken place, both regionally and globally.

Post-Soviet Inertia

In the history of the relatively peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Caucasus stood as a stark exception. Here, the crisis of communist ideology led to a tumultuous surge of nationalism, and the disintegration of the Soviet empire gave birth to a series of exceedingly bloody ethnic conflicts. In light of the current exodus of Armenians from Karabakh, it is essential to remember that during the Armenia-Azerbaijan war over Karabakh, approximately 500,000 Azerbaijanis were forced to abandon their homes.

The Armenian national democratic movement for reunification with the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh was one of the earliest mass movements of its kind. It fostered a high degree of consolidation and political mobilisation in Armenia, uniting democratic forces against both the communist regime and the Soviet empire itself, as they asserted their right to national self-determination. This deepened the mutual understanding between the new democratic leaders of Armenia and the leaders of the democratic movement in Russia, which also opposed the 'imperial policies of the centre' and the Soviet political regime.

The high level of internal consolidation of the new democratic leadership in Armenia became the key to victory in the armed confrontation with Azerbaijan, where, at that moment, bitter conflicts were unfolding between groups from the old elite and the emerging nationalist movement. The strategic alliance between Moscow and Yerevan that was established after the victory of the democratic forces in Russia ensured that the status quo that emerged as a result of the war was maintained for almost three decades.

Paradoxically, in both countries, the transition from the 'romantic' period of post-Soviet democracy to an era of strengthening post-Soviet oligarchies unfolded almost synchronously at the turn of the 21st century. The second generation of post-Soviet elites in both nations (Putin and Kocharyan) easily found common ground. Moreover, the presence of the seemingly 'eternal' conflict over Karabakh ensured Armenia's dependence on Russia and, thus, a secure foothold for Russian influence in the South Caucasus, which was otherwise threatened by Georgia's pro-Western aspirations and Azerbaijan's alliance with Turkey.

The break in this inertia of alliance became evident after the victory of the democratic revolution of 2018 in Armenia. In essence, Pashinyan was able to accomplish in Armenia what Alexei Navalny failed to achieve in Russia against Putin. Armenia remained within the paradigm of post-Soviet semi-democracies, alongside countries like Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, while Azerbaijan and Russia were consolidated as post-Soviet oil autocracies. Although the new Armenian authorities declared a commitment to allied relations with Moscow, the political outlook of the two regimes and their understanding of their strategic interests increasingly diverged.

A Paradigm Shift

However, there was another factor at play, reshaping the power dynamics in the region, and it was also tied to the changing global geopolitical landscape. Twenty years of high oil prices became a pivotal factor not only in the formation of a consolidated Aliyev 'family' autocracy in Azerbaijan but also in a fundamental shift in the regional balance of power.

The consolidated oil autocracy had substantial opportunities to build up its armed forces and gain geopolitical influence, while the factors that determined Armenia's victory in the early 1990s rapidly lost significance. Like Moscow, Baku used its oil revenues to prepare for a military resurgence. The strengthening of Azerbaijan's geopolitical influence made the world pay more attention to its arguments for 'territorial integrity,' while the weight of the argument for 'self-determination' diminished. The world increasingly agreed that the stronger of the two was able to decide which principle was more important.

For Moscow, the alliance between Turkey and Azerbaijan now looked like a much more interesting and close counterpart than small, economically challenged Armenia. This sentiment grew, especially after Russian efforts to block Georgia's pro-Western course were met with relative success.

The unsuccessful war in Ukraine and international isolation have further diminished the value of the alliance with Armenia for Russia, amid its interest in Ankara's loyalty and the need to form anti-Western alliances. There are certainly tensions between Moscow and Ankara, but both capitals consider it important to limit Western influence in the South Caucasus — a region where they have traditionally held sway, notes Thomas de Waal, journalist and writer focused on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, in his commentary for Foreign Affairs. The paradigm of ‘anti-Westernism’ is a priority for the Kremlin that outweighs almost any other pragmatic consideration.

The Weakness of the Strong and the Beneficiaries of the Crisis

At the same time, two decades of the oil boom and the rupture of Europe's energy partnership with Russia have radically altered Azerbaijan’s international standing. The European Union, seeking to replace Russian gas supplies, began to court Baku and increase its imports of Azerbaijani gas, turning a blind eye to Azerbaijan's reputation when it came to human rights and democracy, as highlighted by recent analysis by ECFR experts. However, according to Chatham House analyst Laurence Broers, Azerbaijan's role in current gas supplies to Europe has been overstated: it is responsible for covering only about 10% of the deficit in imported gas that emerged after the bulk of supplies from Russia stopped. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan’s role in gas transit (via the TAP and TANAP pipelines), which could link Turkey to the Central Asian gas basin, is just as important, if not more so.

In essence, the West had neither the political interest nor the means to ensure a humanitarian mission to protect the rights of Karabakh Armenians after the Armenian side recognised Azerbaijan's rights over Karabakh. On paper, Western diplomats had for decades supported an approach to Nagorno-Karabakh based on international legal principles and modelled on the Balkan conflict resolution. However, there were no actual resources to uphold these paper principles, Thomas de Waal notes. Likewise, the Armenian exodus from Karabakh was predetermined by the realisation that neither Russia nor the West could (or wanted to) guarantee the rights of Karabakh Armenians under Baku's rule, including their right to life.

Meanwhile, Azerbaijan and Russia used to be competitors in the European gas market, and Russia was repeatedly accused of attempting to derail EU-backed Caspian gas projects. However, the 2022 energy crisis has reset their relationship, turning Russia into a country highly interested in partnering with Turkey and Azerbaijan on energy, primarily gas transit. In exchange, Russia allows Baku and Ankara to strengthen their influence in the region.

Generally speaking, over the past three years, Russia's position in the region has undergone significant changes: it has transformed from a regional hegemon and patron into a partner, keenly interested in ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey, the Chatham House report notes. Paradoxically, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which was considered a decisive demonstration of Russia's readiness to use force to establish its sphere of influence, became a factor in the rapid and definitive dissolution of that very sphere.

However, Europe is not in a much better position either, partly competing with Moscow for the favour of the Turkey-Azerbaijan alliance to organise gas transit. As in many other areas, the bitter conflict between Russia and the West and the latent conflict between the West and China have opened up significant opportunities for the countries of the Global South to increase their geopolitical and economic influence. At the same time, they have devalued partnerships that once appeared quite lucrative.

Thomas de Waal notes that, in the long term, a democratic Armenia appears to be a stronger bet for Western interests and European integration projects than the fragile authoritarian Azerbaijan. Perhaps in Yerevan, there is hope that the loss of Karabakh and the subsequent rupture with Russia can be at least partially compensated by a stronger partnership with the West. However, in the current intense phase of Russia's conflict with the West and the uncertain outcome of the war in Ukraine, the ground for such hopes does not look very solid, and Europe remains too unsure of itself for now.